It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and a young woman named Chrissy squeals in delight as she hands change back to someone who just purchased the first cup of coffee she poured. Nearby a man breaks down boxes for recycling and labels packages. Another man stands at the doorway with a smile, a friendly greeting and a genuine enthusiasm for all who cross the threshold of Barry’s Do Me a Flavor in Beach Haven, NJ.
“They are looking for a purpose, not a paycheck,” said Sue Sharkey, a recently retired physical education teacher and co-founder of Compassion Café, whose mission is to employ local adolescents and adults with special needs by providing a work environment catered to training and support, so each individual is able to develop appropriate vocational skills in a natural work setting.
“For some, this is their first opportunity to work,” said Sharkey who along with her team opened the new Compassion Café in May at the restaurant in Beach Haven. As a pop-up organization, Compassion Café borrows the shop’s store four days each week for four hours each day, selling coffee and baked goods like bagels and quiche.
The group of about 30 volunteers, which also includes co-founder and Sue’s niece, Erin Sharkey, who is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst, and about 40 employees also sell baked goods for dogs, which they prepare at First UMC of Beach Haven Terrace where the employee training, baking and storage are also done.
“We knew we needed to make connections within our community in spite of COVID. It helps us remember that we are part of the community. It goes outside our walls,” said Rev. Scott Bostwick who noted that the partnership with the Compassion Café was the perfect transition from the community dinners the church used to offer.
For two hours each week, the volunteers and employees spend time in the church’s kitchen, gleaning baking skills, refining customer service and engaging in fellowship that had been missing from their lives over the past 15 months amid the lockdown.
“There are really no services for kids with special needs who age out of school-based programs,” said Sharkey who added that Compassion Café hires people of all ages and from all areas of New Jersey.
The new program, which hopes to grow to about 60 employees, is good for the community who feel good about buying their coffee there. It also means a burden lifted for many parents, who have been unable to access special services during the lockdown.
“All my life I have marveled at God’s goodness. I had children who excelled at school, rode a bike and could just be independent. I’ve always been blessed. These parents have real struggles.”
Sharkey, who grew up in Beach Haven and is a member of a Baptist church in town, was also quick to emphasize that she and her team would not be able to do what they do unless it was not for her dedicated volunteers and generous sponsors like First UMC and Barry and Nicole Baxter who own Barry’s.
“We do not make financial sense,” said Sharkey. “We make sense that comes from the heart of the people we care about, and their parents are so thankful for the opportunity that we are providing for them. There’s something to a wing and a prayer.”
In addition to training and support, the Compassion Café team accommodates employees as best as they can, offering more breaks, allowing some to sit down while they work and offering flexible work schedules.
“For one employee, we slammed the cash register over and over again in front of him to get him used to the environment,” Sharkey said. Anger management training is also provided for the volunteers.
For Bostwick and his congregation, this is a great beginning to help the marginalized.
“Everyone knows someone who is special needs. Now we can contribute toward making their lives better,” said Bostwick who remarked how one employee is writing a book on friendships while working at the Cafe.
Sharkey spoke to the congregation on May 23, thanking them for their generosity. She said the team is planning on doing a pop-up coffee hour for church members this August to show their gratitude.
“God’s got a plan, and that’s how we’re doing things right now.”
The Café is accepting applications for both employees and volunteers and would love to have people from the churches to support and be part of the volunteer staff. For more information, visit their website, www.compassioncafelbi.org. Barry’s Do Me A Flavor on Centre Street in Beach Haven.